July 10, 2013 at 10:14 AM ET
Surgeons often listen to music while they’re operating, but in Brad Carter’s brain surgery it was the patient who supplied the tunes.
Carter, an actor who has landed guest starring roles in popular television shows like “Bones” and “The Mentalist,” says his real passion has always been singing and playing the guitar. But seven years ago, his hands started shaking, making it hard to play some of his favorite songs.
“I’m a guitarist since 1988,” Carter told NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “And music is my first love. I’m an actor for a living, but I always have had music to turn to.”
Carter was diagnosed with benign essential tremor. No one knows exactly what causes the shaking, but experts suspect that a part of the brain that controls muscles movements does not work correctly in patients with essential tremor, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While medications initially helped quiet the tremors, eventually they stopped working.
As the shaking grew worse, Carter stopped performing his music on stage.
“You watch all your skills and who you are as a person sorta . . . they’re vanishing in front of your eyes,” he said, tearing up. “It’s hard to watch that happen and you can’t do anything about it.”
Carter started looking for another solution and found a doctor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who thought he could help.
“We essentially put a pacemaker in the brain,” said Dr. Nader Pouratian, a neurosurgeon at UCLA. “And with the stimulation we help it restore a more normal pattern of activity.”
Deep brain stimulation has long been used to calm the tremors associated with illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease. Doctors surgically implant electrodes in the thalamus, a structure in the brain that is involved with coordinating muscle movement. The electrodes fire off tiny electrical signals that seem to quiet tremors.
For the best results, though, Carter would need to be awake. His doctors suggested that he play the guitar during his operation so that they could see when his tremors weakened.
Carter lay awake for six of the seven hours of surgery, helping doctors adjust the DBS.
Weeks later, Carter’s tremors had quieted down enough for him to get back to playing.
“What this offers is hope that I didn’t have before,” he said. “And you know there’s a way to go. There’s a way to go.”
Carter has already returned to acting and has a role in an HBO series coming out next year – and he may now have a chance to get back to what he loves best.
“A few months down the road, I’d like to record and share my music,” he said.